In his new book, The Butler Speaks, Charles MacPherson (a.k.a. Charles the Butler) shares his hard-won wisdom on everything from entertaining to organizing Asian cutlery. We caught up with the Toronto-based founder of North America’s first and only butler academy to discuss cellphone no-nos, famous fictional butlers, and why there’s nothing rude about tooting—as long as you own up and say excuse me.
I don’t want to make too fine a point of it, but we were supposed to talk at noon and it is now 1:30. Does one’s etiquette fly out the window while promoting one’s etiquette book?
I am so embarrassed. We had two of the numbers in your phone number inverted. Normally, I would never be late.
One of the things you suggest in your book is that before an event, a host should brush up on recent headlines.
People are sometimes afraid to go to an event because they don’t know what to talk about. By picking up a newspaper, it’s easy to get a general sense of what’s going on, so that you can either make conversation or at least be able to listen and comment intelligently.
So, if I was hosting you at a dinner party, I might say, “Charles, I just read a fascinating article in the Business Insider where Mark Zuckerberg says that checking your smartphone at the dinner table is not rude.” And you would say…
I completely and respectfully disagree with Mr. Zuckerberg. The reason is that sitting down to have a meal is about giving your attention to that person or that group. If something is so important that you have to be emailing or checking calls from the table, then you obviously don’t have time for the people you’re with.
And you’re also implying that your time is more important than anyone else’s.
Exactly. I will excuse it if the person I’m dining with is a surgeon and has someone else’s life in their hands, but that’s about it. Mothers may not like this, but just because little Johnny is sick, there’s no reason to disrupt the whole table. In that case, you need to put your phone on vibrate, then excuse yourself to the washroom if you need to make a call.
In general, does the shift towards an on-the-go, efficiency-obsessed society fly in the face of old-school etiquette?
It doesn’t fly in the face. But it means that etiquette needs to change. Etiquette is really about social interactions amongst ourselves and being respectful of each other, which is hopefully something we all still care about.
Is there still a big market for butlers out there? I know people with housekeepers and even drivers, but beyond a few billionaire families, who uses butlers?
There is actually a large demand, and it’s not just billionaires. In the movies, the butler is a person who answers the doors and spills soup on you if he doesn’t like you, but in reality, he is running errands, making an appointment with the air conditioning guy, picking up dry cleaning, and making sure the kids are with their tutor after school.
I was reading that a graduate from your academy can expect to make $50,000 in his or her first year on the job. No, wait—I say “his or her,” but is there such a thing as a female butler nowadays?
There is. Right now, about 10 per cent of butlers in private household service are female, but in the hotel industry it’s about 50/50.
Okay, back to the 50 grand. That is a huge starting salary for a job that doesn’t require a university education.
We place butlers starting at 50 to 60 [thousand dollars] and we’ve done up to a quarter of a million dollars. It really depends on level of service that is expected: Are you running just one households or three households? If you are in charge of three houses that each have a staff of 10, that’s 30 people you’re in charge of. That’s like managing a small company.
Did you watch Fresh Prince? I’m reminded of the episode where Geoffrey tells Hilary that there is nothing demeaning about serving other people.
I don’t recall that exact episode, but I can hear him saying that. The truth is that the work I do is not at all demeaning. Look at the incredible people I’ve been able to meet. Where else would little Charles MacPherson have had an opportunity to sit down to tea with the prime minister? I’ve met movie stars and captains of industry and watched history unfold.
Speaking of fictional butlers, you must have your favourites.
Of course. There is the fabulous Mr. Carson on Downton Abby, but probably my all-time favourite is a sad one—Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day. He is the perfect butler, but he is such the perfect butler that he sacrifices love in his life.
How have you managed to balance your personal life and professional life—is there a Mrs. Charles the Butler?
There is a Mr. Charles the Butler. We’ve been together for over 20 years. In the early years, I was very lucky that he was a really patient person. He worked as a flight attendant so we were used to being separated and it was okay.
Last question—I came across a video clip of you where you are offering etiquette advice. You say, “If you’re going to accidentally toot on the plane,” and then it cuts off. Can you complete the sentence?
Well, everyone toots—it’s just a fact of life. You just say excuse me and carry on.
Swiffer or old-school mop?
Never a Swiffer.
Salt or pepper?
Prince Harry or Prince William?
Best subject in school?
Desert island album?